Huddled outside Manhattan’s Director’s Guild Theatre on West 57th St. this past weekend, a long line of people representing diverse cultures from around the globe clutched movie tickets for a special screening of Avatar, while photographers and filmmakers angled for shots of a soon-to-arrive VIP guest.
As the line slowly moved into the theater, passersby looked on with piqued curiosity to find out what the buzz was all about.
“A special screening of Avatar with director James Cameron”, I told them, “presented to indigenous leaders from around the world.”
What followed was a mixture of blank stares and hopeful requests for stand-by seats: few observers on the busy sidewalk seemed to understand the symbolic correlation between indigenous people and Avatar, but they were certainly eager to catch a glimpse of the mega-successful director whose innovative film has grossed nearly $2 billion in ticket sales worldwide so far.
In coordination with the Ninth Session of the United Nations
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues taking place this month, and in celebration of the film’s Earth Day release on DVD, Conservation International, through its Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, co-hosted the famed director’s special screening for indigenous leaders gathered in New York City.
It was a celebration of the film’s message, and an opportunity for indigenous people to communicate their gratitude and concerns to the Hollywood icon and activist. In addition to his work on the film, Cameron has recently traveled to the Brazilian Amazon and spent time with the Amazon’s Kayapó people, with whom CI has collaborated on
conservation efforts for nearly twenty years.
After a live didgeridoo performance by Aboriginal artist Cameron McCarthy, and funny 3D viewing glasses were distributed, CI’s Indigenous Program VP Kristen Walker welcomed the crowd. Then, Cameron took the microphone to greet the audience and cue the film to start. Three hours and many backstage interviews later, the Avatar writer/director walked on stage to thunderous applause.
In Avatar, an indigenous species called the Na’vi resists an invasive corporate military force intent on exploiting their planet’s valuable minerals. Many people in the theater saw their stories reflected back in the larger-than-life blue of the Na’vi. “They call us the red indigenous people, so there must be blue indigenous people somewhere in the universe. So thank you very much”, said Oren Lyons, a Native American leader from North America.
“You’ve showed something that is our reality”, said another indigenous leader from North America to Cameron, “but it gives indigenous people hope.” Then, indigenous leaders including CI’s own Board Member, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz visiting from the Philippines, presented the director with symbolic gifts of gratitude. “This book on indigenous issues”, smiled Vicky as she handed the director a text, “is to help you with research on your next film”. (A second round of supportive applause…)
“I think it’s very important to write from the heart, and Avatar is what came out”, said Cameron. “What’s so exciting to me is to see all these people from all these cultures. There’s so much we can learn from you. We just need to wake up that awareness with the rest of the public.”
“I think we’re at a critical moment in history”, he added. “Doors are starting to open.. and collectively we can start to do things.”
Off-stage, I was genuinely impressed to see how open, passionate, and gracious James Cameron was in posing for pictures, signing autographs, answering journalists’ questions, and then sitting down with CI President Russ Mittermeier, and Chairman’s Council Member Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier to talk about their experiences with the Kayapó people of Brazil. The man really cares about indigenous issues.
And I, for one, was happy to shake his hand.
Check out Avatar in theaters or on Blu-Ray or DVD, if you want to share in the experience.
Kim McCabe is CI’s U.S. Media Manager.